December 10, 2013 at 7:35 pm

Lynn Henning

Tigers reshape themselves into fleet-footed outfit

Lake Buena Vista, Fla. — I don’t know how many times it happened. But it was a regular event at Comerica Park and anywhere else the Tigers played baseball in 2013.

A runner would be planted at second base, and that’s not a bad term: planted. Immediately, you were free to wonder if said runner would score on a single, which is the most common manner for delivering a man in scoring position.

Prince Fielder was a gamble in such situations. So, too, was Miguel Cabrera, whose sequence of abdominal injuries made him a particularly bad bet to advance more than one base. Victor Martinez was all but dead in such settings, while Jhonny Peralta could be problematic.

The Tigers were a bogged-down bunch in 2013. And it was unmistakably apparent, even if front-office boss Dave Dombrowski never officially spoke about new strategies, that the Tigers were about to re-craft their roster for 2014 with new emphasis on speed and athleticism.

They are carrying through. Rajai Davis, a fleet outfielder who won’t win any slugging awards, appears to be the Tigers’ new man in left field, opposite Andy Dirks who was a Gold Glove finalist in 2013.

Cabrera will move to an opposite infield corner, upgrading first base in broad fashion when compared with the Tigers predecessor there, Fielder. Nick Castellanos will steadily be a defensive improvement over Cabrera at third and will run reasonably well for a guy 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds.

Ian Kinsler, the new second baseman, can run. So, too, can Jose Iglesias, who is prepping for a full season as a high-throttle defender who beats out infield hits. Expect extra-base knocks to become part of his profile as a 23-year-old body grows stronger and adds more plate punch.

Changes needed

These moves, by way of trades and signings and promotions, were necessary adjustments if the Tigers were going to win a World Series. They have twice gotten to the grand show the past seven years and have lost. They have twice been snuffed out in the American League Championship Series.

The reason, fundamentally, is that good pitching shut down their big-inning bats. The Tigers simply could not steal a run unless their big boys were hammering pitches that October pitching makes more difficult.

Dombrowski spoke about all of this in essay-like fashion Tuesday as he sat in the Tigers’ hotel suite on the second day of baseball’s winter meetings at the Swan and Dolphin Resort at Disney World.

He spoke about the futile quest for a “perfect club” and the tradeoffs that a team must make when ideal roster pieces are rarely available. He acknowledged that the Tigers, for example, have gotten faster and a bit sturdier, defensively, by trading Fielder.

“But we’re gonna miss the RBIs out of that left-hand bat sometimes,” Dombrowski said, getting to the imbalance that is created either way for a team that must decide between locomotives and race cars.

“You’re always weighing these things,” he continued, accepting the fact that roster-building often leaves a team tilted one way or another — to a bigger, more power-oriented team, or to a lighter, more mobile group that typically blends better defense with greater speed.

“And so,” Dombrowski said, sounding like a man caught in an architectural tug-of-war, “you become a different ballclub.”

By no means is this drift — by either calculation or acceptance — foolproof plan. The Tigers, as Dombrowski knows, are forfeiting an element of crowd-pleasing power for a more daring brand of offense in 2014. Davis, the free-agent outfielder whose two-year deal with the Tigers is a doctor’s physical from being finalized, is emblematic of the Tigers’ new trend.

Platoon plan

A right-handed hitter who is all of 5-9, 185 pounds, Davis, 33, will platoon with Andy Dirks, in left. Left field now becomes more of a speed-and-glove position for the Tigers, although there is reason to believe Dirks will hit closer to his old standard after shaking off a bad knee that hassled him in 2013.

The infield for 2014 is faster, better defended, and no doubt not nearly as offensively imposing as last year’s crew. Fielder is gone, as are Omar Infante and Jhonny Peralta. Nick Castellanos will likely pick up some of the slack, even if a loud fan camp believes, wrongly in this view, he will never hit.

It brings us to Austin Jackson and Alex Avila. Two players who turn 27 ahead of spring camp need to have seasons consistent with their skills and run-production potential, which they most certainly did not have in 2013.

Minus the right amount of fury from Jackson’s and Avila’s bats, the Tigers will have trouble in too many games and could find themselves in peril even before Dombrowski unveils his annual July trade that, you can already bet, will involve adding a big bat.

But this necessary shift in bringing legs and leather to the Tigers’ DNA is overdue. The Tigers have deep starting pitching and should have a shored-up bullpen by the time Dombrowski has plucked a reliever or two and finished his offseason re-tooling.

The problem, though, was obvious last season. Not enough runners were scoring, either on those singles that left a man standing at third or dead at home plate, or on doubles that left runners dying in the same manner, blowing yet another scoring opportunity that could not be wasted by a team playing for a championship.

Defensively, it was the same story. Infield grounders were scooting past Fielder at first, Cabrera at third, and, until Iglesias arrived, Peralta at shortstop. Many, many more of those grounders will be handled with the new gang in place.

Outfield, too, will get an upgrade from the Davis-Dirks tandem, with Comerica Park’s square mileage now better-patrolled by guys who can track down potential game-winning shots up the gap, or bloopers that had a habit of falling in when Dirks’ alternate was standing watch.

Brad Ausmus, the new Tigers manager, will have a chance to create situations and runs unavailable to Jim Leyland when Leyland was overseeing a roster full of warthogs.

There will be games and low-scoring games that will frustrate the fans. But the slow-pitch softball lineup had its limitations, as well.

Or, you might have drawn that same conclusion while watching a team trudge through the regular season, and deep into October, only to lose, invariably to a more versatile team.

Rajai Davis, a fleet outfielder who won't win any slugging awards, appears to be the Tigers' new man in left field along with Andy Dirks, a Gold Glove finalist in 2013. / Orlin Wagner / Associated Press
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